Being born a refugee means you enter the world without any guaranteed rights. And if you are born a Palestinian refugee, your rights depend on the country you live in. All Palestinian refugees live as unequal in their host countries. In Syria, Palestinians can work and go to school, but there are limitations to property ownership and participating in the electoral process. In other countries, such as Lebanon, Palestinians do not have the right to work or go to school. The most repressive and alienating inequality all Palestinians face is limited freedom of movement.
The barriers for Palestinians to integrate fully into their host communities and countries has helped Palestinians maintain their unique identity. It has also helped romanticize the past and what was once had and now lost. Someone wrote: “My grandfather told me that our city in Palestine is the most beautiful city in the world; I know that my grandfather never visited any place outside our refugee camp, and I also have never seen our city in Palestine except in pictures, but I believe my grandfather.” What we were told by our grandparents of their journeys from their lost homeland into exile, built our own connections to our grandparents’ lives and hometowns that we also never visited or saw.
My grandmother at 13 years old worked as a teacher, traveling between Safad and Nazareth to teach when she had to flee Palestine. She crossed the border into Lebanon with her mom in May 1948 and remembered being told by a Salvation Army officer in Ras al Naqoura that within fifteen days Palestinians would go back to their homes. On May 14, 1948, 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes and were forced into exile, while Zionist militias declared the establishment of the Israeli state. In December 1948, the United Nations issued the right to return resolution or resolution 194. At this time, Palestinians in exile, including my grandparents, thought they would be going home. But Israel never recognized the resolution and as a result it was never implemented or enforced.
In December 1949, the United Nations established the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). I remember my grandmother saying that she did not take being a refugee seriously until UNRWA was established. She had hoped it was only there to stabilize a temporary humanitarian crisis but realized quickly its mandate was more permanent. She later ended up working for UNRWA for forty years.
The way UNRWA worked was it rented land from the governments of the refugee host countries and gave plots to Palestinian refugees. My grandfather received a piece of land and built a small house for his big family as he thought it was only going to be a temporary home. He was told that where he lived was a camp, and the word camp represented a temporary phase, not one that would last forever. The Palestinian refugees built their houses in these camps and named their new streets after the names of their cities and villages in the homeland. This is something in common across all Palestinian refugee camps, including in Syria and Lebanon, where you find streets named after Nazareth, Yafa, and other cities. In these houses and streets, Palestinians started to build their cultural incubators. The camps helped the refugees keep their accent, music, food, and wedding traditions. Palestinians built the camps as mirrors reflecting their homeland.
Beginning in the early 1960’s the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had risen to be the only legitimate political representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO gave Palestinian refugees the political identity they were missing and helped build the dream of Palestine as a state in exile. As it is known, the PLO is a coalition of many factions, all of them secular and more left leaning, led by Fatah, which is more secular, left and Islamic. This helped the PLO grow in popularity over the decades, as it was seen to represent all spectrums of Palestinian society. Until Oslo, Palestine for Palestinians encompassed all of present-day Israel, including the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza.
In 1994, with the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel, Palestine became smaller and the dream of the right to return started to fade. After Oslo, the PLO continued to focus heavily on building the dream of a Palestinian state, this time with different borders. We the refugees in the camps hoped naively we would no longer be refugees, and that we could either choose to stay in our host countries or choose to move to live in the West Bank and Gaza. We even used to fantasize that Gaza would become the Hong Kong of the Middle East, and for the first time, Palestinians could enjoy the liberties that come with citizenship, including freedom of movement and the recognition of Palestine as a country.
In reality, a disempowered PLO and an aggressive Israeli settlement expansion fueled resentment among Palestinians. With the second intifada in 2001 and the Israeli invasion of the West Bank, the political landscape changed dramatically. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was besieged in his presidential headquarters for three years, ending with his death in 2004. This showed Palestinians that Israel had the capacity to besiege an Arab president while the international community did nothing to stop it.
This began a new phase of the Palestinian struggle and suffering. Until then, fringe movements such as Hamas and al Jihad al Islami were not popular among Palestinians. Al Jihad al Islami was seen as an Iranian tool from the beginning and was never competitively popular. Hamas never presented itself as a Palestinian movement and was always seen as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood’s global movement. Until around 2003 it was hard for Hamas to infiltrate the Palestinian communities in Palestine and the diaspora because many Palestinians still opposed political Islam. But after the death of Yasser Arafat, there was a clear void in Palestinian representation and Hamas seized this opportunity to expand its popularity as an alternative to the weakened PLO.
The 2006 Hamas win in the Palestinian legislative elections, and the choice of the international community to not recognize their win, deepened the divisions in the Palestinian socio-political structure. For the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, it was necessary to build a peaceful resistance movement for the rights of Palestinians through international recognition at the United Nations. Hamas chose another route and built an alliance with the so-called Axis of resistance along with Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, who poured weapons and money into Hamas and al Jihad al Islami, promoting a military resistance through rockets. Hamas’ rockets divided the Palestinians further, with many factions including the Palestinian Authority, rejecting this route. Hamas’ rockets played into the hands of the Israeli narrative of the Palestinians as the violent aggressor and were used as rationale to respond with lethal and disproportional Israeli fire power, resulting in huge numbers of Palestinian casualties and further Palestinian displacement.
When the Arab- Spring started, Palestinians hoped it would bring an end to their suffering. But instead, it made the situation worse. In Syria, Palestinians were massacred by the Syrian government and lost all that they had inherited from their great grandparents, grandparents and parents. Iran and Hezbollah massacred Syrian people in the name of Palestine, claiming their goal was to build a path to Jerusalem through Syrian cities. Some Palestinian factions supported the Syrian regime and massacred Syrians. Hamas supported the opposition and helped militarize and train radical Islamic movements, only to later reconcile with Hezbollah and the Syrian government. And the Palestinian Authority did nothing to stop the siege, starvation, and murder of Palestinians living in camps.
Every year on the 15th of May, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba. This year and after 73 years Palestinians continue to be displaced with each new conflict. And after 28 years post-Oslo, Palestinians in the West Bank are still under occupation. And Gaza is still under siege. And Palestinian citizens of Israel still live as unequal citizens under constant threat of displacement. The rights of Palestinians have been dehumanized and politicized for seven decades by successive Israeli governments. The Palestinian cause has been used to serve the agendas of many Arab and regional powers, but never the Palestinians. This latest round of protest around Sheikh Al Jarrah is not just about evictions. It is about the fear that what happened in 1948, could happen again, and the world will once again do nothing to stop it. It is about Palestinians expressing their frustration and disappointment of the injustice they have been facing for decades. Today, Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza, and the diaspora, are using new forms of grassroots resistance, building awareness and educating the world, with more unified movements centered around human rights, justice, and international law. After 73 years, Palestinians have learned that they themselves, individually and collectively, have the strongest voice.
Nidal Betare & Arwa Shobaki